Thursday, July 28, 2016

How Did They Manage to Do so Much?

The Night Bookmobile (detail), by Audrey Niffenegger
I asked myself this question while reading the biography of Goethe by the Scottish historian Peter Hume Brown (1849–1914). Keep in mind that Brown was not a Germanist, not even a literary scholar. Between 1898 and 1912, however, he made annual trips with Richard Haldane to Weimar, the two sharing an enthusiasm for Goethe's work and German literature in general, and collecting materials for a life of Goethe. In 1913 Brown brought out the first half of the biography; the second volume would appear posthumously, nearly complete in 1918, but edited by Richard and Elizabeth Haldane who also published a collection of Brown’s lectures.

Biographies, even the longest ones, give only a partial view of their subject, and Brown's is no exception. The inner life is not part of his remit, insofar as that refers to Goethe’s private emotions, but the extent of Brown’s knowledge of Goethe’s outward life and his works is pretty staggering. One small detail: noting that Carlsbad replaced Jena for Goethe after Schiller’s death, how did Brown come up with such details as that Goethe was among “about 650 visitors in Carlsbad”? Sigrid Damm, in Christiane and Goethe, devotes space to Goethe’s visits to the spa, including the one undertaken with Christiane, noting some of the well-known personalities at the watering hole, but she doesn’t mention how many visitors were actually partaking of the waters.

M.M. Prechtl, Goethe in Farbenkreis
Well, in answer to my question about how earlier writers managed to do so much, clearly they had someone like Christiane taking care of the household, from ceiling to cellar which included managing household accounts and servants, receiving visitors, generally isolating the master from distractions, and assuring that he had his favorite foods, even when he was in a town six hours a way by carriage. In “the troubled year of 1806,” according to Brown, Goethe was “assiduously  pursuing his own pursuits. In April he finished the first part of Faust, in December the didactic part of the Farbenlehre, and he was at the same time engaged on the edition of his collective [sic?] works.” He also assisted in restoring “the ordinary life” in Weimar and Jena after the French incursion. With the help of the commandant of the French soldiery quartered in Weimar, lectures were recommenced at the university of Jena on November 3; on December 5 the Institute of Drawing in Weimar was reopened; and also in December the theater in Weimar. “Goethe, in spite of conditions that would have arrested the productiveness of most men, turned out a considerable tale of literary work between 1805 and 1809.”

Does anyone care about the role of Christiane in all of this? Was she just a little nobody, an ordinary person, like many other women in Weimar, who would otherwise not attract any interest had she not been associated with Goethe? Marius Fränzel clearly thinks she does not merit a role in a double biography. Here is his judgment of Damm's study, summarized: Taken by herself, this woman is in no way interesting. Without her connection with Goethe, she remains ordinary, one among many contemporary women with an ordinary life. One should not be surprised to discover that she was no Simone de Beauvoir. Christiane herself simply does not interest us, despite the over 500 pages of this volume.

Moreover, Fränzel asserts, Damm knows this as well,  yet she seems to have set her self the task of pleading for this person, of making Christiane interesting — without success. 600 letters were exchanged between Goethe and Christiane, yet at the end of this book the relationship between Goethe and Christiane has not been illuminated. Fränzel  nsists that we know only what we can see from the outside, that they apparently loved each other — insofar as that can be explained — that they succeeded in establishing a way of life that was beneficial to Goethe’s productivity, and that was probably pragmatically accepted and maintained.  In sum: “Liebe und Alltag einer Lebensgemeinschaft.”

Fränzel does give Damm credit for the amount of archival research she has undertaken, which supports her narrative style, which he calls the  “Ich stelle mir vor” method. As he writes, “‘Ich stelle mir vor’ erscheint in diesem Blick nur als die reflektierte Variante dessen, was Biographik in wesentlichen Teilen immer schon war: Vergegenwärtigung des Undokumentierten.” Damm belongs to the school of biographers who rely on their imagination to effectuate a portrait, rather than on “the facts.”

Cornelia Goethe, ca. 1770, by J.L.E. Morgenstern
I think he is wrong, however, to condemn this double biography because of the lesser importance Christiane occupies in the world of Goethe studies. I pointed out in my last post Goethe’s failure to educate this “ordinary” woman with whom he lived on intimate terms for 28 years, especially the contrast it represented to the opportunities Marianne von Willemer received from Johann von Willemer. This failure is also of interest because of Goethe’s own pedagogical tendencies, revealed early on in his letters to Cornelia from Leipzig. And one should note the anecdote reported by Bettina Brentano, that the child Goethe had under his bed a stack of papers with lessons and stories in which he had planned to instruct his younger brother. He had once been an enthusiast for Rousseau, remember?

As has been written: "The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there." There is no use in speculating on what might have become of Christiane had Goethe devoted more time to her education. Had he done so, we would have had a different Goethe to contend with. But the omission does suggest that Goethe could not combine physical intimacy with a woman with whom he was intellectually or literarily involved (Charlotte von Stein), even had he wished to do so (Marianne v. Willemer, Minna Herzlieb)

Picture credits: The Guardian; Galeria Jacobsa Nürnberg

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